Disruption can come from anywhere, at any time. Weak signals may provide advance notice.
- The pandemic has demonstrated how the unthinkable can become thinkable, revealing the importance of being prepared for low-probability events.
- While the likelihood, scale and nature of the impact of weak signals are uncertain, they can radically reshape industries, companies and the human experience.
- Quantum computing, brain-machine interfaces, space commercialization and transportation drones are weak signals that leaders need to have on their radar.
The sudden emergence and rapid spread of COVID-19 underscored the need for companies and governments to be ready for low- probability events. More than ever, the pandemic has also reinforced that disruption can come from anywhere, any time.
As a business leader, how do you respond to low-probability events? After all, companies have limited resources and it is neither reasonable nor efficient to invest in mitigating every risk.
The EY Megatrends framework for disruption allows companies to distinguish between causes and effects and differentiate between near-term and longer-term trends. Weak signals — nascent, or growing, trends that are far in the future — are an essential part of the framework. While the likelihood, scale and nature of the impact of these weak signals are uncertain, they can trigger tectonic shifts such as spawning entirely new industries, radically transforming business models, and changing the human experience in enduring ways.
Each weak signal has specific milestones or barriers that represent tipping points after which they may become forces of disruption.
That’s why leaders need to assess and monitor the weak signals that could have the greatest impact on their business, customers and operations. And when certain milestones seem within sight, companies can undertake small pilots to assess viability and proof of concept. Ultimately, weak signals need to become part of every company’s peripheral vision.
Here are four weak signals that could bring dramatic change and unlock significant new opportunities, thus earning their place on the radars of business and government leaders.
- Chapter 1: Quantum computing
- Chapter 2: Brain-machine interfaces
- Chapter 3: Space commercialization
- Chapter 4: Transportation drones
Can the unique properties of quantum computers provide solutions to the problems that are intractable for computing today?
By exploiting the behavior of atomic and subatomic particles, quantum computers will perform computation significantly faster and more efficiently than today’s most powerful supercomputers.
Quantum computing is now moving from theory to application. After decades of research, meaningful progress in the last few years has brought a basic form of quantum computing out of the labs. Cloud-based platforms are even making these capabilities broadly available to average users. Increasing investment from technology companies and governments, coupled with the progress being made by a clutch of venture capital-funded startups, have collectively raised public hopes of an imminent quantum revolution.
Quantum computers promise to tackle a variety of problems intractable for computing today, from precisely simulating molecular interactions to discovering new drugs, materials and environmentally friendly chemicals, to solving complex optimization problems such as city traffic management or modeling risk across large financial portfolios. Indeed, quantum computing will be game-changing for any data and computation-intensive company.
Quantum computing will be game-changing for any data and computation-intensive company.
However, today’s quantum computers are rudimentary; they are neither scalable nor stable. The slightest disturbance from the external environment — called “noise” in the quantum world — could cause computational errors. Although noise mitigation strategies exist, they levy a large computational burden, defeating the speed and efficiency promise of quantum.
Further, quantum computing demands an entirely new approach to computation-based problem-solving, requiring very specialized knowledge and skills. Truly harnessing its power will require democratizing access by developing hardware-agnostic software languages, algorithms, measurement standards and a whole host of yet-to-be invented tools.
Overcoming this trinity of challenges – scalability, stability and programmability – will almost certainly signal a true tipping point for quantum computing’s viability.
In the next 18 months, expect to see significant improvement in quantum hardware with more quantum computers becoming available over the cloud. This will lead to new proof of concept applications, fueling a robust ecosystem of standardized programming languages, consulting services and more.
So, how relevant is quantum computing to your business? Ask what problems you’re currently struggling to solve with today’s computing resources, and can these unique properties provide solutions? Today’s computers, however complex, are based on just two digits: one and zero. Quantum computers can store and process information in qubits that can be one and zero at the same time – leading to potentially exponential increases in computing power and storage. Exploring the potential of this transformative technology – whether through seeking education or conducting a pilot – could provide significant competitive edge for when quantum computers become a reality.
How will brain-machine interfaces revolutionize human endeavors from work to learning and beyond?
Brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) connect the human brain and nervous system directly to computing devices and digital information. Form factors range from wearables to surgical implants. The ultimate vision is enabling bi-directional flow of information: “reading” or interpreting neural signals, allowing users to control computing devices, and “writing” or relaying external information directly to the brain.
BMIs are not entirely new. They have a long history in clinical applications, such as cochlear implants for the hearing impaired or neuro-prosthetic limbs for the paralyzed. But now, progress in neuroscience, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence is unlocking new non-clinical opportunities, enabling even able-bodied individuals to augment their cognitive faculties.
Imagine a workforce that can be upskilled and reskilled at the same pace as technological and market changes. Or knowing your customers’ neurological responses to a new product or service, enabling you to take personalization to a whole new level. Surely, every company could benefit from such capabilities.
Although the field continues to make progress, hurdles remain. Invasive surgical implants are risky, and healthy individuals may not opt for one. Less invasive wearables on the head or elsewhere are not yet powerful enough to detect the high-resolution neural signals that would enable complex applications like flying a drone or virtual gaming. Significant training is required for even today’s most sophisticated BMIs to reliably function and complete tasks intended by the user. Lastly, with 100 billion neurons and 500 trillion connections, picking up the relevant signals from the extraneous noise in the brain is no mean feat.
BMIs imply a more seamless and intuitive bridge between human and machine intelligence and get at the very heart of individual personalities and characteristics. As a result, BMIs raise complex ethical issues about privacy and autonomy, as well as access to neural data and how it might be utilized by companies, employers, governments and law enforcement. In the most extreme scenarios, there is the possibility of mind hacking by cyber criminals to do their bidding or a future where our decisions are dictated more by data-driven algorithms than our independent will.
BMIs will need to be user-friendly, safe and reliable with a compelling value proposition for customers to consider adoption. Although today BMIs exist that allow users to control external devices, there are none that allow digital information to be accessed and absorbed directly into the brain. When bi-directional BMIs arrive then the field will have truly realized its technological promise. The productivity, creativity and efficiency benefits of BMIs will become tangible once legislation around data security, accessibility and governance are established.
In the coming months, expect to see a growing number of less invasive BMIs enter the market such as those that improve the quality of sleep, enable weight loss or treat psychiatric disorders such as depression. These will help make BMIs more common to the public. At the same time, testing to improve the signal capture of implantable BMIs will continue and result in making them more reliable. New and safer techniques to embed these interfaces inside the brain will also see progress.
While fully functional bi-directional BMIs might still be further off, today’s less invasive BMIs could provide new customer or employee data to businesses. Leaders need to consider the value of this data to their efficiency and productivity goals while balancing the ethical risks. Simultaneously, they need to keep pace with the technology’s progress and participate in shaping policy and governance.
Once they arrive, BMIs will revolutionize every human endeavor from work to learning and beyond. Companies need to be prepared for how BMIs will reshape their talent management and development as well as how they will leverage this new and valuable source of data to better serve their customers.
The increasing democratization of space is bolstering ambitious plans
Historically, accessing space was an expensive endeavor dominated by a few countries. Now, new technologies and private companies are upending the economics of rocket launches, and democratizing access like never before. As a result, companies now have the ability to launch satellites and acquire new capabilities from tracking of shipments to precision farming and predicting retail sales and more.
Bolstered by this success, private space companies and national space agencies are teaming up to achieve even more ambitious plans. For instance, some are pursuing space-based manufacturing, while others are assessing the viability of asteroid mining, which could mitigate the depletion of natural resources on Earth. There are also efforts underway to make humanity a multi-planetary species, and enable space tourism.
Despite the pandemic, investment in the space sector and public-private partnerships continues to gather momentum, but what does this mean for your industry and how might it impact your business?
In a time where customers are demanding more transparency, geospatial data showing ethical and sustainable sourcing of raw materials for products could bolster company reputation and trust. Similarly, satellites can now monitor the health of physical infrastructure such as gas pipelines; identify mineral deposits; and track deforestation and carbon emissions. These new sources of data can help companies fine-tune their strategies, improve efficiency and track their carbon footprint more reliably. Moreover, as a growing number of satellite internet constellations are launched, they will provide companies access to billions of new customers.
Looking further out, microgravity labs, space tourism, asteroid mining and the colonization of other worlds will open new opportunities for sectors ranging from pharmaceuticals to hospitality as well as advertising to retail and more.
However, entering this new space age will require overcoming significant challenges. Besides the technological and biological limitations of deep space travel, there are more near-term risks. With millions of debris objects in space and the increase in satellite launches, any accident could trigger a cascade of collisions, making space prohibitively hazardous and halting exploration for decades. In addition, high-resolution satellites planned for earth observation and imagery will be powerful enough to see the detail of a person’s face from space.
We will have to reimagine the norms, laws and institutions that will be needed to enable the sustainable, responsible and ethical use of space. Global rules and governance will be needed to address not just issues of privacy but also jurisdiction and ownership of commercial human settlements and harvesting of resources in space.
Business leaders need to ask themselves: when space is no longer the final frontier, how will their company take advantage of the unique opportunities on offer?
Over the next 18–24 months expect to see the emergence of guidelines to mitigate and manage space debris. This will reduce the potential for collisions and stabilize the orbits above our planet, making it less risky for companies to put satellites in space for their terrestrial business operations. We also expect to see new uses and business models for satellite imagery and data.
To achieve more ambitious plans, space companies will continue to develop spaceships and propulsion technologies to send humans to other worlds. It is possible that we might see some members of the public become space tourists as well. Business leaders need to ask themselves: when space is no longer the final frontier, how will their company take advantage of the unique opportunities on offer?
How will this new mode of transportation impact operations, business models, customer experience and more?
Startups as well as incumbents in the aviation and automotive sectors are looking to expand drone capabilities to transporting people, not just goods. With cities like Singapore and Dubai aiming to be the first to offer an aerial robo-taxi service, sci-fi visions of flying cars might be on the horizon.
Along with reducing commute times, improving productivity and lowering air pollution, passenger and cargo drones will have far-reaching implications for nearly every company. Business leaders across industries will need to ask themselves how this new mode of transportation will impact their operations, business models, customer experience and more.
For instance, architects would need to include vertical take-off and landing pads, charging docks and parking spaces in their designs. New building construction materials will be needed to enable wireless signals that are crucial for drone navigation and communication systems. Similarly, businesses ranging from insurance and advertising to fast-food and more will need to rethink how they might serve customers riding or offering aerial transport services.
However, several technological and regulatory barriers will need to be overcome for transportation drones to become part of our aerial landscape. Companies developing these drones have to overcome battery limitations and build in safety systems as well as design elements to instil trust to fuel customer adoption. Governments will need to institute regulations including vehicle requirements, social “driving” norms, and safety standards. Moreover, they will have to create some form of monitoring to ensure compliance.
Over the coming months, we expect to see more cities experiment with transportation drones and conduct pilots to assess viability and safety. Watch for the introduction of regulatory frameworks and governments giving licenses to the manufacturers of these systems for testing purposes. Once the technological limitations are overcome, regulations are firmly in place and the first test rides are offered to members of the general public, we might not be far from strapping in and taking off from our driveways.
COVID-19 has shown that we need to be prepared for the unexpected. It has reinforced that understanding emerging issues is critical, but so too is identifying disruptive forces that have potential to significantly transform business models and spawn entirely new industries. Technological breakthroughs in quantum computing, transportation drones, space commercialization and brain machine interfaces are weak disruptive signals. Not monitoring their progress could be a very costly mistake.